Robust social categorization emerges from learning the identities of very few faces

Robin S.S. Kramer, Andrew W. Young, Matthew G. Day, A. Mike Burton*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

41 Citations (Scopus)
63 Downloads (Pure)


Viewers are highly accurate at recognizing sex and race from faces-though it remains unclear how this is achieved. Recognition of familiar faces is also highly accurate across a very large range of viewing conditions, despite the difficulty of the problem. Here we show that computation of sex and race can emerge incidentally from a system designed to compute identity. We emphasize the role of multiple encounters with a small number of people, which we take to underlie human face learning. We use highly variable everyday 'ambient' images of a few people to train a Linear Discriminant Analysis (LDA) model on identity. The resulting model has human-like properties, including a facility to cohere previously unseen ambient images of familiar (trained) people-an ability which breaks down for the faces of unknown (untrained) people. The first dimension created by the identity-trained LDA classifies both familiar and unfamiliar faces by sex, and the second dimension classifies faces by race- even though neither of these categories was explicitly coded at learning. By varying the numbers and types of face identities on which a further series of LDA models were trained, we show that this incidental learning of sex and race reflects covariation between these social categories and face identity, and that a remarkably small number of identities need be learnt before such incidental dimensions emerge. The task of learning to recognize familiar faces is sufficient to create certain salient social categories.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)115-129
Number of pages15
JournalPsychological Review
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2017
Externally publishedYes


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